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For the last 25 years, prolific multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird has followed his muse in many, sometimes unpredictable, directions. From fusing folk, indie rock, and jazz music, to fiddling for a Renaissance fair, to playing violin for Squirrel Nut Zippers and then going solo again. Bird’s been able to take this experimentation act on the road, where, like a comedian, he’s tested his material on his audience.
But when the stay-at-home orders began in early 2020, Bird found himself grounded. Like so many others, the My Finest Work Yet artist sought a new equilibrium, starting with plucking tunes from his own back catalog to perform in song-a-day concerts on Instagram. He expanded his holiday album, Hark!, including adding a pandemic-inspired track, the searching “Christmas In April.”
Most gratifyingly for the singer-songwriter, he was able to make an album he first conceived of in 1997: an unvarnished collaboration with the Zippers’ Jimbo Mathus. Out March 5, These 13 is a moving, gospel-rooted culmination of an artistic partnership that first began in 1994, one that sees both Bird and Mathus in peak form. Before the album dropped, The A.V. Club spoke with Bird about this long-gestating project, how Mathus kept him from making music that was “too cerebral,” and staying busy (willingly or otherwise) during a pandemic.
The A.V. Club: These 13 is an album you’ve wanted to make for a very long time. Can you talk about the inspiration for it?
Andrew Bird: When I was 22 or 23, I met Jimbo Mathus, who has had a huge impact on me. We have this history together. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to make a very stripped-down album with him—just fiddle and guitar. Not only was he inspiring to me, but he was a mentor to me when I was starting out. He gave me kind of a leg up, and I always thought there’s something in Jimbo’s musicianship I wanted people to hear, that isn’t always given the room to be heard. Once I spent years away from that late ’90s Squirrel Nut Zipper world, I wanted to come back and kind of honor him and make some music with him.
AVC: You’ve said that if you hadn’t met Jimbo, your music would have gone in a much different direction—it would have been more “cerebral,” is the term that you use. How did he help you steer clear of that?
AB: Well, I have to kind of set the stage, where I was at that time. I was coming out of four years of conservatory music school at Northwestern, and I was playing in a weird ska punk band. I was not a buttoned-up, you know, model conservatory, classical student by any means. But whenever I’d go to visit Jimbo, making music was just part of the everyday fabric of life. There was very little talk about what you were doing or what your intentions were. It was just nonstop musicality and playing—more of a lifestyle. Back in Chicago, at school, there was a little more discussion of your intent or what you’re trying to do, instead of just getting right to it. I was getting impatient with that kind of over-thought stuff.
So every time I’d play with Jimbo, it would just kind of ground me. What’s great about playing with him is that he can make incredibly simple things sound extraordinary. Instead of being on this path towards more and more complexity, which I was on at the time, he showed me this other dimension. He just turned me on to this music that was from before there was much of a music industry, recording industry, radio, or anything that kind of normalized music. And he’s still coming from this local or regional place, where weird things can develop on their own without getting influenced by something else in like, say some little pocket of North Mississippi. It had its own colloquialism, its own branch of the tree. After a while, there was a lot of cross-pollination because of radio, but also everyone was listening to the same stuff and it was kind of normalizing music. He turned me onto these things that were “odd,” almost non-Western phrasing, where the beat would get turned around or you wouldn’t go to the four chord or you just never know what’s going to happen next.
In terms of setting me on a different path, I think it was also seeing the Zippers perform in those days. Say what you will about the swing thing—that was a trend—but the Zippers were a weird post-punk, eccentric Southern rock band that happened to be playing this music from the ’20s and ’30s. They were really more like The B-52’s or one of these bands that came out of like Southern college towns. Their approach to performing was to just like throw your whole body into it. It was more like an Iggy Pop approach to performing [Laughs.], in a sort of old vaudeville. I would see that from the side of the stage before I’d come on to play with them. And I’d be like, I want to do this. I want performances to be like this—a visceral energetic thing, not cerebral. I was coming from music school, which had more sit-down, passive kind of performances.
AVC: Your shows seem more organic or freewheeling. There are some songs, like “Pulaski At Night,” I’ve heard you play live multiple times and the arrangement was always different. It’s interesting to hear that Jimbo encouraged you to remain open that way.
AB: Yeah, he really did. We’ve played on each other’s albums. He was on the first couple of albums for Bowl Of Fire [Bird’s band from 1997-2003), and I was on the first couple of Zippers albums. But I really got the idea for [These 13] when we did Songs For Rosetta, which was a tribute to Charlie Patton and a benefit record for his daughter. It was less a swing thing and more a weird American Southern history of all kinds of music from that area. Jimbo turned me on to Charlie Patton and The Handsome Family and Mavis Staples. Whenever I finished one of my Andrew Bird albums that I would almost lose my mind trying to make… when I was done with them and I was just adrift, I would go back to Charlie Patton and do a cover of one of his tunes. It was always a touchstone to keep me grounded and remind me of what I was doing whenever I had lost my compass. And it was on that album—that we made that in ’98 in New Orleans—that I first thought, “I need to do more of this with Jimbo.”
But at that time, I had to kind of get out from under the shadow of Zippers because I was trying to play my music, and they were—their promoters were advertising swing dance lessons. And everyone was confused by that, including people trying to learn swing dance to my music. [Laughs.] So it took years to carve out my own reputation apart from that association. But my impulse was always to make this record. I thought at first that it was just going to be us doing a bunch of Mississippi Sheiks and Charlie Patton covers, and I wasn’t prepared for how much of a songwriting collaboration it would end up being. That was a pleasant surprise.
What was remarkable about making the album was just the sort of lively, lyrical conversation we were having 2,000 miles apart where he would send me like a fragment of a song. And immediately, I would either say, “No, that’s not right for this album,” or I would hear exactly the metaphor that he was going for, or the person that was speaking. And I would respond with a chorus or a bridge that either told the other side of the story, or took the metaphor a little further. It was really fun. There’s a certain clarity when it’s not inside your own head, when it’s just coming to you, and you’re like, “Oh, I know what to do.” And you write it in a half an hour, and it’s like “yeah, that’s good.”
AVC: Do you think you’ll ever take this approach to an album again?
AB: I would do it again with Jimbo. He keeps sending me stuff. His demos are so brilliant. They’re like field recordings, and they’ve got so much character to them that they could be an album as they are. But we’re both used to working in a more solitary way. So this is a novel to have this sort of conversation. Yeah, I would do it again.
AVC: These 13 is just one of several projects you’ve had over the last year. You’ve really kept busy since the stay-at-home orders and the shutdowns began, with these kind of mini-shows on Instagram and the livestream of The Mysterious Production Of Eggs. At the holidays, you released the LP version of Hark! What personally has kept you able to produce at this rate, despite everything that’s going on?
AB: I was worried when I realized that touring was going to shut down for a while. That’s been such a part of my identity and process for writing, just having that sounding board in the audience. Not that there’s a comments box on the way out of the theater, but you just know when you’re playing a new idea for an audience—it just tells you a lot about what you’re doing, whether you’re on the right track. And I just feel like there’s a dialogue that I have with the live audience. I just physiologically and mentally adapted to this weird world of playing five shows a week. My whole endocrine system is adapted to that, so I was worried what was going to happen when [live shows] just went away.
I wasn’t particularly moved to write music at first, because I just wasn’t sure what to say about what was happening. So there were months where the first thing I did was just plow into my back catalog and start playing these old songs I hadn’t thought about for years. And then every morning, after breakfast and coffee, I would make an Instagram video of me just playing one of my old tunes by myself. That scratched the itch to some degree. But if there’s a silver lining, it’s to make sure the music that you make and present to people is more part of everyday life, instead of this big ceremonial thing, when you make an album and you lay down 12 songs that you’ve been working on for three years. It’s a lot of pressure for me. This was more casual; I’d just do a couple takes on my phone then immediately send it out to the world. I can’t say it completely took the place of playing for a couple of thousand people in a theater, but it was a different thing and it was gratifying. It continues to be.
I’ve never been super-precious about how I present things. It has to do with my stage persona, too—however I feel that day, I don’t try to hide it. It’s this “We’re all in this together” kind of attitude to being on stage. Some performers are like, “No, it has to be perfectly put together with the right musicians behind me and everything.” And I’ve always been fine to throw out half-finished ideas to the world. That kind of informed how I was making the second half of Hark! Songs like “Christmas In April” were done on my couch late at night with the phone kind of propped up behind me. But I was completely reclined on my back. You get a different kind of result than when you’re like poised in front of a microphone, in a studio. That sort of scrappiness of it is what’s working.
AVC: Productivity myths have been floating around since before the pandemic, but over the last year, it feels like there’s more pressure to work or create since we’re not doing much else. Do you think you have to produce art or engage with your art every day to consider yourself an artist?
AB: When you’re fully consumed by your art, you stop referring to yourself as an artist. You know what I mean? Up until the age of 26, I was obsessed with these ideas of “Am I an artist?” and “Can I be an artist? I was swept up in the romance and the idea of it, but I wasn’t it yet. I was still in a sponge-soaking-it-up-learning-what-I-can phase and talking about being an artist. At a certain point, it took over and became essential to survival, like eating, sleeping—all these other impulses that you have. I don’t have office hours. I’ll work on a song at three in the morning when I can’t sleep or I’m waiting for an airplane for hours. It’s just always there. Now, a novelist is a different thing. That’s a different kind of discipline; no less creative, but music is a little more elusive. You’re catching what you can.
AVC: The discussion around what great art will come from the pandemic is very similar to all the talk over the last four years about the protest art that would arise during the Trump presidency. How helpful do you think that kind of discussion is, both as an artist and as someone who consumes art?
AB: As far as the pandemic goes, it’s just like one of those Chicago winters. We always thought, “God, they just go on forever. But then comes the spring, and we’ll all come out with something beautiful that we made to keep from going crazy.” And this is just like the longest Chicago winter any of us has ever experienced. [Laughs.] The 36 years I lived in Chicago was like, you’re [making art] for your mental health. You’re doing it to just of keep it together when you’re suffering from seasonal depression.
Now, with regards to what’s going on in the world and politics and discourse, that just kind of seeps in and comes out. Protest songs that are devised as such—“I’m writing a song to say this about this and this is my point of view”—in my experience, that’s not how the process works. When you write things that way, they tend to be kind of clunky and don’t really seep into the universal consciousness anyway, because it’s just not good. But I had that conversation during the four years of Trump with comedians who were like, “Why aren’t musicians doing more?” It’s easy to like say something irreverent as a comedian, but it’s another matter when it comes to music, it’s... an issue of intent. Our news feeds and the way we’re consuming media and everything—it just doesn’t understand the way things are made. You can’t be alive in this time and not be very conspicuous about politics, and it is conspicuous how absent it is from a lot of music. I will say that. As I said, I didn’t know what to say about the pandemic as a song writer. It’s also like, yes, I’m absorbing the world I have, and it comes out in my songs. It’s not like writing an opinion piece.
AVC: You were actually back in Chicago during the pandemic to reshoot some scenes for Fargo season four. What was that experience like?
AB: That was a total surprise to me. I had no designs on becoming an actor whatsoever. Noah Hawley saw me play a show and said, “There’s my funeral director.” He had to talk me into it. It was crazy coming back to Chicago to do something, to live in corporate housing downtown. It’s just very bizarre. It’s like what happened to my life? That I’m suddenly living like a bachelor downtown Chicago, in a condo, that part was weird. And then I was in neighborhoods I used to live in, and yet it had nothing to do with any of my history in Chicago. I was doing something I didn’t know how to do and hadn’t really thought about doing. It was an education, for sure. Fargo is an 11-hour feature film. It’s a full, extensive production. There’s a whole hierarchy, a codified division of labor, of which the actors are just like a small part. I like things where I’m learning, and I was definitely learning on that set, so I’m really thankful that my role was to play a nervous man.
AVC: Fargo has so much great music, including the score from Jeff Russo. You’ve also done written some scores, correct?
AB: Yeah, I’ve done it, and I continue to do it. But given a choice, I’d much rather just play a show. When I had to go back to Fargo, we literally had to go into an apartment in River North and couldn’t leave for two weeks. I took this job scoring a documentary, which was kind of a lifesaver—it kept me focused on something. So I was just in this corner in the closet of a condo in downtown Chicago. I was recording on my iPad and then I was bouncing takes off my phone. I was monitoring off my phone and recording. It was ridiculous. But I did a whole soundtrack in those two weeks, for a documentary about journalism called Storm Lake, which focuses on this town in Iowa called Storm Lake where the local paper’s struggling to stay open.
I’ve done a handful [of scores] over the years. I thought when I was in music school that that’s what I was going to do, as I always felt like I could do a good job at it. But then I started getting into van and going around the country, playing rock clubs. And that was more fun.